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Blog post Part of series: Covid-19, education and educational research

The fear factor: Children’s post-lockdown maths anxiety

Fay Cosgrove

Maths anxiety (MA) plays a role in educational disparities and the gender pay gap, yet it is not often addressed at the chalkface. Covid-induced school disruption may have made learning for maths-anxious pupils harder than ever, so it is crucial to promote awareness.

MA describes feelings of worry and stress that can get in the way of thinking about numbers. It can lead to avoidance of maths, which can impact life chances and earning potential. Mathematics graduates – like their science, technology and engineering counterparts – are well paid, especially in the first decade of their careers (Deming & Noray, 2018), so avoiding maths can put young people at an earning disadvantage. The ubiquitous nature of numbers in society and the need for financial literacy in daily life also disadvantages those who are maths averse.

While there are many scales for measuring MA, few are designed for the British context, and those that are often don’t have the psychometric data needed to ensure their validity and reliability – although Carey et al. (2017) have developed a rigorous scale for British children aged 8–13. Estimates of the prevalence of MA range considerably depending on sample and criteria (Dowker et al., 2016 give an overview). Some estimates claim that 11 per cent of university students show high enough levels of anxiety to need counselling whereas others claim that as much as 17 per cent of the general population are maths anxious with many samples showing that girls report higher levels of MA than boys (Hill et al., 2016).

During remote learning, access to teachers for reassurance and encouragement was limited. The pressure of live teaching via digital platforms reduced thinking time and increased the stress of answering questions. Teachers struggled to maintain rapport in the impersonal digital world and encourage withdrawn children to re-engage. In my own class, maths-anxious children often went silent, despite my best efforts. With some parents feeling anxious about maths themselves (Maloney et al., 2015), some children’s experiences of maths were fraught.

‘During remote learning, access to teachers for reassurance and encouragement was limited. The pressure of live teaching via digital platforms reduced thinking time and increased the stress of answering questions.’

The return to face-to-face teaching has brought with it an increased emphasis on wellbeing, but teachers have not received training to spot hidden anxiety nor the strategies required to tackle anxiety. Without easy measurement of maths anxiety, coupled with continued uncertainty and stressful working conditions for teachers, some learners may not get the help they need to achieve their potential for some time.

The good news is that for some maths-anxious individuals, the return to the classroom will have been welcome and some anxiety will be reduced through the usual reassuring contact with their teachers and peers. There are also simple, inexpensive and easily implemented strategies that can help reduce MA. An opportunity to write before tackling maths has been shown to help by ‘parking’ the worries and freeing up mental resources such as working memory (Ashcraft & Krause, 2007). Maximising thinking time and promoting mindfulness (Samuel & Warner, 2021), an emphasis on reasoning and strategy, avoidance of time-pressured activities, opportunities to improve fluency, and the valuing of high-quality communication as well as accuracy and speed (McCarty et al., 2019) can all contribute to reducing the sometimes-paralysing effects of maths anxiety.


References

Ashcraft, M.H., & Krause, J.A. (2007). Working memory, math performance, and math anxiety. Psychonomic Bulletin & Review, 14(2), 243–248. https://doi.org/10.3758/BF03194059

Carey, E., Hill, F., Devine, A., & Szűcs, D. (2017). The modified abbreviated math anxiety scale: A valid and reliable instrument for use with children. Frontiers in Psychology, 8, 11. https://doi.org/10.3389/fpsyg.2017.00011

Deming, D.J., & Noray, K.L. (2018). STEM careers and the changing skill requirements of work. National Bureau of Economic Research.

Dowker, A., Sarkar, A., & Looi, C.Y. (2016). Mathematics anxiety: What have we learned in 60 years? Frontiers in Psychology, 7, 508. https://doi.org/10.3389/fpsyg.2016.00508

Hill, F., Mammarella, I.C., Devine, A., Caviola, S., Passolunghi, M.C., & Szűcs, D. (2016). Maths anxiety in primary and secondary school students: Gender differences, developmental changes and anxiety specificity. Learning and Individual Differences, 48, 45–53. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.lindif.2016.02.006

Maloney, E.A., Ramirez, G., Gunderson, E.A., Levine, S.C., & Beilock, S.L. (2015). Intergenerational effects of parents’ math anxiety on children’s math achievement and anxiety. Psychological Science, 26(9), 1480-1488. https://doi.org/10.1177/0956797615592630

McCarty, L.A., & Faulkner, M.S. (2020). Integrating writing and mathematics: Journaling to increase learning and enjoyment while reducing anxiety. Teaching Mathematics and its Applications: An International Journal of the IMA, 39(3), 145–159.

Samuel, T.S., & Warner, J. (2021). ‘I can math!’: Reducing math anxiety and increasing math self-efficacy using a mindfulness and growth mindset-based intervention in first-year students. Community College Journal of Research and Practice, 45(3), 205–222. https://doi.org/10.1080/10668926.2019.1666063